The last Senators’ game and Howard’s homer

Every Washington baseball fan old enough can remember it. Those younger undoubtedly have heard about it: the last game played by the Senators, September 30, 1971, at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.

A week earlier, American League owners had given the financial-cheat owner, Bob Short, permission to move the expansion franchise to Arlington, Texas. Many of the 14,460 paid fans, augmented by a few thousand gate-crashers, stormed the field with two outs in the top of the ninth with the Senators ahead of the Yankees, 7-5. They began removing the bases and anything else they could carry off. The game was forfeited to New York, the first forfeit since 1954.

To mark the 50th anniversary, the venerable Baseball Digest in its September/October 2021 issue ran an account of the game, headlined “A Monumental Loss.” Beginning as one of the eight original American League teams in 1901, this Senators game would be the 10,851st a Washington club had played, Baseball Digest editor Rick Cerrone wrote. Among the many highlights he mentioned, of course, was Frank Howard’s sixth-inning homer off the Yankees’ Mike Kekich.

The Nats’ 6-foot-7 slugger had talked about  the homer for Yankees Magazine in 2011. Like many players’ recollections, Howard’s had faded over time. The count, he said, was two balls, no strikes. In fact he had fouled off Kekich’s third pitch. But clearly, Kekich was feeding the Nats’ slugger fastballs.

“I wouldn’t say it was grooved,” Howard insisted, but “I knew I was going to get a fastball, and it was right down Broadway…. But even if he did lay it in there, you still had to hit it.” Indeed, Howard lined the pitch off the back wall of the visitors’ bullpen in left.

Based on contemporary accounts from multiple sources, Kekich wanted Howard to hit one out. So did Yankees’ manager, Ralph Houk. The game was meaningless as far as the standings. The Nats were last in the Eastern Division and the Yanks were fourth, hovering around .500.

The Yankess led, 5-1, when Howard came up in the bottom of the sixth.

 “I saw (Kekich) looking over at Houk,” Howard told reporters after the game. “I think they said give him something he can hit…. I’ve never tried for a home run before but I’ve got to be honest; I figured let it go.”

Jim Hegan, the Yankees bullpen coach, warmed up Kekich before the game. “He told me he was going to lay it right in there and see how far Howard could hit it,” the Washington Post’s William Gildea quoted Hegan as saying.

Howard, rightly called “the Gentle Giant” because of his kind nature and modesty, was effusive in describing what the homer meant to him.

“This is utopia for me,” Howard, quoted by Gildea, said. “Something I’ll never forget…. This is the greatest thrill I’ve ever experienced.”

Howard waved his batting helmet to the madly cheering crowd, all of them on their feet, as he reached the dugout. His teammates made him go out for a curtain call during which he threw his helmet and his cap into the stands. Then, he came out again when the cheering wouldn’t stop. This time, the slugger blew a kiss to his roaring admirers – “the only way I could tell them they’re the greatest fans in the world…. It’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me.”

The Senators, no doubt spurred on by Howard’s homer, rallied to take the lead. The game was halted in the eighth inning when a number of fans jumped onto the field. Players from both teams took refuge in their dugouts, but security men managed to get the fans back in the stands after a six-minute delay and a announcement warning that the game could be forfeited.

Manager Ted Williams removed Howard from the game after the eighth inning. “He told me ‘You better get out of here because this thing is going to erupt,’” Howard told Yankees Magazine. With Toby Harrah at the plate, Tom McCraw was thrown out trying to steal, sending the game to the top of the ninth.

Ahead by two runs, Joe Grzenda got two quick outs in the ninth. In his hand was the ball that Bobby Murcer had hit on the ground back to him to put the Nats an out away from victory. Grzenda, who died in 2019,  had yelled for Horace Clarke to get in the batter’s box before bedlam broke out.

“I’ve always had good luck with him,” Grzenda told Gildea. “There was no way he was going to do anything.”

It wasn’t to be. Hundreds, then thousands, of fans streamed onto the field. Grzenda, the ball still in his hand, headed with his teammates for the dugout. Umpire Jim Honochick declared the game a forfeit.

That ball stayed in a drawer in Grzenda’s house in Goldsboro, Pa., until he told a Washington reporter in 2005 that he still had it. On April 14 of that year, Grzenda handed the ball to President George W. Bush near the mound at RFK, so the president could deliver the ceremonial first pitch before the Nationals’ first game in Washington.

After Ted Williams took uniform number 9 when he became manager in 1969, Hondo ungrudgingly began wearing no. 33. Washington would be without a major league baseball team for 33 years before the Expos became the Nationals. Howard, now 85 and living in the D.C.’s Virginia suburbs, has remained in the game as a manager, coach and front-office advisor. Fittingly, he has a statue outside of Nationals Park.

As the Washington Post’s beat writer, George Minot Jr., wrote after the Senators’ final game, “Howard was more often than not the only exciting thing the club had going for it.” The headline on Minot’s October 1, 1971, story: “Howard Due His Adulation.”

For more on Frank Howard, see “Hondo: the expansion Senators’ enduring star” and “The 1969 A.L. home-run race” elsewhere on this site. A BioProject essay on Howard, by Mark Armour, appears on the website.  

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